I’ve done a motocross taster course last weekend in Mildenhall, near Bury St Edmund’s, in Suffolk, about 2h drive from London.
Take the B out of BMX anytime, if you like
Ever since I was a little boy racing through the woodlands behind my parents’ backyard on my BMX I was fascinated by the MX part more than the B part. I enjoy the physical exercise of pedalling, don’t get me wrong, and I try to be green. But if faced with the option of (Bi)cycling at 30km/h or shooting up near-vertical ramps at 90km/h and jumping 15m through thin air on a two-wheeled MotoCross (MX) rocket, I need very little time to make up my mind.
A bit of a hike by public transport
As rental cars seem to be extremely overpriced these days, I travelled by public transport. I took the train to Ely (£15 for Super Off-Peak Day Return with Network Railcard discount), changing trains in Cambridge. Just over 1.5 hours after departure I arrived. From Ely I had already ordered a cab to the race track near Mildenhall, which took another 25 minutes and cost £25 (shop around, some firms charge £60 and more).
Arrival at the race track, fellow riders
As requested I arrived well ahead of time. This meant that I had more than half an hour to sign in, get my gear, change clothes, and get ready. It was also good to get a chance to chat with the other five guys in my group. Four of them had arrived together. Except for one of them they had all been riding bikes quite regularly. One of them had done a bit of dirt biking ten years ago, but none since then.
#5 was Frank, who seemed like a fun kind of guy. He had just returned to the motherland from working on a yacht for six years, zigzagging around the globe and getting paid for it. Every now and then he had taken a few months off from all the travelling the globe by sea to do some exploring by land. As you would. BAMF.
He had bought himself a nice bike and had already done a few sessions. While at it, he also purchased paragliding gear and started a two-week course a few days ago.
Norwegian Expressionism, Immanuel Kant
Dan owns and runs MX TryOut together with his partner Chris. Dan is the type of guy that people would refer to as “quite a character” while mimicking famous Munch paintings and thinking of German philosophers. Luckily, we only had to deal with Dan for the first 15mins before the start of the course. Chris was our instructor for the full 2.5h of this half-day experience (£140). And he was very pleasant.
Learning from a pro
He didn’t offer the information freely, but when I asked him about his background, he did tell me a bit about his days as a pro MX racer. The days when he was ranked in the top 10 of the UK and competed internationally. His father owns the proper MX race track next-door: Mildenhall MX at Pear Tree Farm. We could hear the big boys and girls on their bikes from the MX TryOut course. At quite some volume.
Seven-year old daredevils
We could also see about a dozen seven-year olds being assisted by their parents. They were getting ready to do some runs on the mini-dirt bikes on a mini-course in a safe distance from the main TryOut course. I find it fascinating how kids that young can learn how to do motocross. When I was a kid I would have sold my soul to ride one of these 65ccm bikes that are very similar to the big ones, just smaller. The mini-bikes have 6 gears, a clutch, all the usual garnish.
Two different bikes to choose from
For the adults there are two bikes to choose from, the Kawasaki KX85s (85ccm) which is also used by older kids, and the KX250f (250ccm). Usually, you need to have prior experience riding the 250ccm bikes. You also need to be at least 170cm tall.
A fortunate misunderstanding
I had never sat on a motorbike before, not as driver anyway. A long time ago I had a near-death experience as passenger on a brand-new 177hp Fireblade owned by a very much former friend of mine with minimal sense of self preservation. Due to a misunderstanding I ended up in the group that was on the big bikes. I think it had to do with the fact that I had mentioned that I had once had a motorbike licence in Germany. Back then, everyone automatically got a licence for very small motorbikes (I think it was 125ccm) with their car drivers’ licence.
Was I disappointed? Hell no. Intimidated, scared perhaps, possibly even slightly freaked out, but quite happy to face the challenge.
Where’s the gas pedal?
At this stage I had no idea where the brakes were, where the clutch or the gearshift lever. Most importantly: I did not know how to get this thing up to speed. There were buttons too. No clue what they were supposed to be for. Nitrogen boost? Self-destruct? Emergency eject?
Chris kicked the session off by going through safety and Covid instructions, before giving a few pointers to the four experienced guys in my team. When the four of them had been sent off onto the track, our instructor focused on the guy who had not been on a dirt bike for ten years. I was listening in.
There was no need to explain the different parts of the bike. It was all about driving technique. Among others, Chris reminded us to sit on the front of the seat and to have our head close to the front. Ideally almost above the handlebar. With our arms each bent in 90-degree angles, lower arms pointing vertically downwards onto the handlebar from the elbows. Both elbows aligned with the shoulder. Never ever should we allow our torso to lean backward and our arms to extend in a straight line forward to the handlebar. This would make it impossible to command the bike properly and could lead to disaster.
My colleague seemed confident. When given the go-ahead, he kickstarted the motor, kicked in the gear, eased the clutch, softly pulled the throttle, and gradually started to accelerate. I was relieved. So after all, this was doable. This was a walk in the park. Die another day, yay.
And then the other dude accidentally pulled the throttle too hard, accelerated very quickly, started to lean backwards, his arms no longer bent in 90-degree angles but going to the handlebar in two straight lines. The speed increased further, he was jumping up and down on the seat and it looked like he was going to crash into a fence.
Switching to a smaller bike
Then he managed to lean forward again, let go of the throttle, pull the clutch and brake. He was visibly shaken. No banter or kidding around. Just the request to join the 85ccm team, which was approved. Off he went and walked over to the other end of the race course, where the 85ccm team was still in the middle of the initial briefing.
Suddenly no longer feeling so brave
My daredevil spirits had vacated my body and left skid marks on my soul on the way out. In my dreams I usually die fighting, crushed by a tank, smashing into the ground after a parachute fail, or ripped apart by a great white on a diving trip. Skewered by a fence post on a former potato field while sharing a dirt track with 7-year old kids was going to look pretty silly, even by my standards.
Re-focusing on training
It shows Chris’ talent as an instructor that he managed to calm me down quickly. He started by explaining the different parts of the vehicle to me.
The technical bits
I learned that the lever in front of the left end of the handlebar was the clutch. It was easily possible to change the gears without using the clutch. Nonetheless, with the longevity of the mechanical parts in mind, it was better to use the clutch. The lever in front of the right end of the handlebar is the front brake. The right hand grip is the throttle. You turn the upper side towards you and the lower side away from you: hell, in a good way. To slow the thing down, you move the throttle the opposite way. It’s kind of intuitive. The one move is similar to lifting the front wheel, like you would, if you race from the starting line real fast. The other move is similar to lifting the back wheel, as it would, when you brake real hard at a high velocity. The throttle is extremely responsive. The difference between full throttle and idle is just three or four millimetres movement.
Driving off in second gear
While everyone else was doing their rounds on a short elliptic section of the track, I listened to the instructions. How to put the gear in neutral, how to kick-start the motor, how to press the clutch (use just one or two fingers, keep the other fingers on the hand grip). Moreover, I learned how to kick the motor into second gear. How to slowly let loose of the clutch while giving gradually more throttle.
I’m usually a slow learner when it comes to the handling of gear or vehicles. Presumably I tend to over-analyse, aim for a high degree of confidence in my command before I give it a proper shot, etc. However, with motocross, everything was so completely new to me that it must have short-circuited my brain. It switched to intuition. I let myself be absorbed by the experience.
On the second attempt I managed to do a pretty decent start and joined the others making my rounds. I was a lot slower than the others. But after a few rounds, I’m guessing, I must have been going at two thirds of their speed or more. At this stage, everyone was going very slow. Around the corners it was jogging speed, then human running speed on the straights.
Alternating track time with the other team
After 15mins we left the track and the 85ccm team had their 15mins. Chris wasted no time and continued with the instructions. Again, I listened to what he told the other four guys, but most of it was not yet that relevant to me. Reaching optimal speed was much less of a concern to me than avoiding close encounters with hedges, fences and trees. I’d leave any record-breaking attempts to another visit.
65km/h can feel very fast
Sure enough, 15mins later the other four riders made their way onto the track while I was given some special 1:1 instructions. After 3mins I made my way onto the track too. I gradually gained more confidence. On the straights I was now switching into third or even fourth gear and giving it a fair bit of throttle, hard to guess what my maximum speed was, but probably around 65km/h. It certainly felt a lot faster than that, but this is not unusual in my experience. My reasoning is that I don’t think my colleagues went faster than 85km/h, and they ‘felt’ about 20 km/h faster than me at minimum differential. It happened quite regularly that they stayed behind me for a little while until they found a good opportunity to overtake.
Cream of the crop
There were plenty more 15min sessions and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Two of the other guys seemed to have made a deal with the gods of speed. They certainly showed no fear and I’m guessing their next shot at MX will be on the big course with Mildenhall MX under Chris’ dad’s supervision.
Hard on the wrists, but a lot of fun
During the penultimate session I could feel the strain on my wrists and decided to focus on shooting pictures during the last session. When our course had finished, we all felt like we had learned a lot. I had learned how to drive a motorcycle and tried my hand at motocross.
To me this experience was more exciting and more special than any of the other ones during the past few weeks. So this is 5* out of 5 from me, with a star.
Open Water Swimming
It was 1:30pm when I finally said my goodbyes, put my 65l backpack on my shoulders, and made my way to the River Lark, less than 2km down the road, near Karma Farm Eco Campsite. The river had been recommended to me by Twitter friends as one of the best places for open water swimming in the Southeast.
Moreover, this was supposed to be one of the best places to spot lampreys. These eel-like creatures have survived several global extinctions and have been dithering around for at least 350 million years, way before the first dinosaurs rocked up. They don’t have a normal mouth, but a round opening called ‘oral disk’ with more than a hundred razorsharp teeth. To top it all off, they are also called nine-eyed eels, because they have one nostril, one eye, and seven external gill slits on each side of their body.
Attack of the Killer Lampreys
The brook lampreys in these waters only grow to about 20cm. However, their bigger cousins, the sea lampreys, which can also be found in freshwater, can be six times that size. They can kill large sharks by sucking them empty, and there are many documented cases of attacks on humans. There is even a Hollywood movie called Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys.
Nothing beats a nice double cheese burger
I had brought all my gear with me, wetsuit, rubber shoes, rubber balaclava, goggles, tow float, and so on. I spent about three hours walking along the Lark, the Cut-Off Channel, and Tuddenham Mill Stream, but either the water was too deep, too shallow, there were too many algae, or I was too close to a weir or lock. In the end I called it off. I got myself an exquisite double cheese burger with chips (£13) and a beer at the beer garden of the five-star boutique hotel Bull Inn in Barton Mills, while I waited for my cab back to Ely (£30).
Looking for more motorsport and activities involving motors, check out our posts about our rides on a jetlev, a powerboat, a jetboat, a zodiac, a jetski, a quad bike, in three supercars and a rage buggy, or the flying lesson and rally driving course I’ve recently done.
For food & travel inspiration feel welcome to eyeball our posts about our favourite place for brunch in Venice, our favourite tapas bars in Barcelona, our day in Dubai, or our visit to Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant.